United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania
MELISSA M. UPHOLD, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER OF SOCIAL SECURITY, Defendant.
OPINION AND ORDER
Donetta W. Ambrose United States Senior District Judge
Melissa M. Uphold (“Uphold”) brings this action
seeking judicial review of the ALJ's decision denying a
claim for supplemental security income (“SSI”).
Uphold applied for benefits in March of 2012, alleging a
disability beginning on October 23, 2010. (R. 17) She
appeared and testified at a hearing on February 5, 2014, as
did a vocational expert. (R. 17) The ALJ denied Uphold's
claim, finding her capable of sedentary work with certain
restrictions. (R. 25) Uphold has appealed and challenges the
ALJ's decision in several respects. Pending are Cross
Motions for Summary Judgment. Docket no. 10 and Docket no.
12. After careful consideration, I find Uphold's
arguments to be unpersuasive. Consequently, the ALJ's
decision is affirmed.
Standard of Review
standard of review in social security cases is whether
substantial evidence exists in the record to support the
Commissioner's decision. Allen v. Bowen, 881
F.2d 37, 39 (3d Cir. 1989). Substantial evidence has been
defined as Amore than a mere scintilla. It means such
relevant evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as
adequate. Ventura v. Shalala, 55 F.3d 900, 901 (3d
Cir. 1995), quoting Richardson v. Perales,
402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). Determining whether substantial
evidence exists is “not merely a quantitative
exercise.” Gilliland v. Heckler, 786 F.2d 178,
183 (3d Cir. 1986) (citing Kent v.
Schweiker, 710 F.2d 110, 114 (3d Cir. 1983)). “A
single piece of evidence will not satisfy the substantiality
test if the secretary ignores, or fails to resolve, a
conflict created by countervailing evidence. Nor is evidence
substantial if it is overwhelmed by other evidence -
particularly certain types of evidence (e.g., that offered by
treating physicians).” Id. The
Commissioner's findings of fact, if supported by
substantial evidence, are conclusive. 42 U.S.C. Â§405(g);
Dobrowolsky v. Califano, 606 F.2d 403, 406 (3d Cir.
1979). A district court cannot conduct a de novo
review of the Commissioner's decision or re-weigh the
evidence of record. Palmer v. Apfel, 995
F.Supp. 549, 552 (E.D. Pa. 1998). Where the
ALJ's findings of fact are supported by substantial
evidence, a court is bound by those findings, even if the
court would have decided the factual inquiry differently.
Hartranft v. Apfel, 181 F.3d 358, 360 (3d Cir.
1999). To determine whether a finding is supported by
substantial evidence, however, the district court must review
the record as a whole. See, 5 U.S.C. Â§706.
contends that the ALJ erred in discounting the weight given
to the opinion offered by her treating psychiatrist Dr.
Melissa Albert. The amount of weight accorded to medical
opinions is well-established. Generally, the ALJ will give
more weight to the opinion of a source who has examined the
claimant than to a non-examining source. 20 C.F.R. §
416.927(c)(1). Additionally, treating sources are given more
weight than non-treating sources “since these sources
are likely to be the medical professionals most able to
provide a detailed, longitudinal picture” of the
claimant's medical impairments. 20 C.F.R. §
416.927(c)(2). If the treating source's medical opinion
is well-supported by “medically acceptable clinical and
laboratory diagnostic techniques and is not inconsistent with
the other substantial evidence in [the] case record, ”
it is given controlling weight. Id. If it is not
given controlling weight, an ALJ should also consider the
length of treatment and the frequency of examination, the
nature and extent of the treatment relationship, the
supportability of an opinion, the consistency of an opinion,
and the specialization of the physician. Id.
Although the ALJ may choose who to credit when faced with a
conflict, he “cannot reject evidence for no reason or
for the wrong reason.” Diaz v. Commissioner of Soc.
Sec., 577 F.3d 500, 505 (3d Cir. 2009).
to Uphold, the ALJ's rejection of Albert's opinion
contravenes these directives. The ALJ assigned “no
significant weight” to Dr. Albert's opinion. (R.
27) After careful consideration, I reject Uphold's
to the extent that Uphold faults the ALJ for failing to
provide “specific reasons” for rejecting Dr.
Albert's opinion,  such an argument is unpersuasive. The ALJ
explained that Dr. Albert's opinion was not consistent
with her underlying treatment records, was essentially a
conclusory form report and devoid of any explanation or
rationale, and was not well supported. (R. 27) As set forth
above, these are acceptable reasons for discounting opinion
evidence. 20 C.F.R. § 416.927.
the ALJ's reasons are, in fact, well supported by
substantial evidence of record. As the ALJ observed, Dr.
Albert recorded in her treatment notes that Uphold was calm,
alert, cooperative and well-groomed and spoke at a normal
rate and with a normal rhythm and at a normal volume. (R.
218-220, 223-230, 234, 699-734). Moreover, Uphold presented
with an intact thought process, and without hallucinations,
delusions, or thoughts of suicide or homicide. Her
concentration was intact and her insight was only mildly
impaired. Id. Dr. Albert found that Uphold had no
impairment with respect to friendship / peer relationships or
an ability to concentrate. (R. 220) Moreover, Dr. Albert
reported a GAF rating of 56. (R. 736) As the ALJ stated,
“”[u]nder the DISM-IV scale a rating of 56
indicates an impression overall of only moderate symptoms or
moderate difficulty in social, occupational or school
functioning.” (R. 27)
findings, recorded over the entire treatment history, are at
odds with Dr. Albert's report in which she found that
Uphold had “no useful ability to function” with
respect to: completing a normal workday and workweek without
interruptions from psychologically based symptoms; perform at
a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length
of rest periods; accept instructions and respond
appropriately to criticism from supervisors; get along with
co-workers or peers without unduly distracting them or
exhibiting behavioral extremes; set realistic goals or make
plans independently of others; and deal with stress of
semiskilled and skilled work. (R. 738-39) Dr. Albert reported
that Uphold had experienced four episodes of decompensation,
yet, as the ALJ noted, “there is no supporting evidence
in the record” for this assertion. (R. 25)
Additionally, as the ALJ noted, Dr. Albert's opinion is
essentially a form with checked boxes and “[s]uch
conclusions are weak evidence at best. Mason v.
Shalala, 994 F.2d 1058, 1065 (3d Cir. 1993).” (R.
Albert's report is also inconsistent with the findings
expressed by Dr. Andrews as a part of his evaluation in May
of 2012. (R. 433-437) Dr. Andrews found that Uphold
“seemed to be able to think reasonably and respond
without difficulties.” (R. 435) He found “[h]er
remote and recent memories [to be] excellent.” (R.
435). He noted that “[s]he was able to perform all
tasks and respond to questions without losing any
concentration or having problems with her attention.
Questions never need to be repeated for her. She had good
pace and persistence with encouragement with exception of
Dal's.” (R. 437) He reported that “[s]ocially
she relates in a low key but pleasant manner making good eye
contact and smiling easily. She has no difficulty with
speech. She admitted that she was somewhat anxious during the
initial phase of evaluation and this anxiety might be evident
in a work setting. Medications seem to be helping in this
regard.” (R. 437) Dr. Andrews declared her prognosis
“fair.” (R. 436) Dr. Andrews' assessment of
Uphold suggests an individual whose mental impairments,
though real, are not disabling.
I turn to Uphold's contention that Dr. Andrews'
findings that she had marked limitation with respect to the
ability to make judgments on simple work-related decisions
and respond appropriately to changes in a routine work
setting support her claim for disability. (R. 761) I find
that it does not. The ALJ accounted for these limitations in
formulating the residual functional capacity assessment such
that Uphold would perform unskilled work with few, if any,
changes in her work assignments or routines. (R. 26) The RFC
also takes into consideration Dr. Andrews' conclusion
that Uphold has moderate limitations with respect to her
ability to carry out detailed instructions, to interact
appropriately with co-workers, and to respond appropriately
to work pressures in a usual setting. (R. 761) The ...